Vicksburg bridge hit again during high water; 11 barges break free

A Vicksburg, Miss., railroad bridge that was struck by vessels five times in 10 days last year was hit again this spring during high water on the Mississippi River.

The 170-foot towboat Graestone Express was downbound with 14 barges when the port stern barge in the tow struck a concrete support pier on the Old Highway 80 Bridge. The accident happened at about 1500 on May 23 near mile marker 436.

Eleven barges broke away after the impact and one sank several miles downriver, according to Coast Guard Lt. Rita Walter, who is based in Memphis, Tenn. The Coast Guard is investigating and Walter said the cause of the incident has not been determined.

The incident occurred during a period of high, fast water on the Lower Mississippi River. The river was running at 48.23 feet, more than 5 feet above flood stage.

Herman Smith, superintendent of the Old Highway 80 Bridge, heard the barge hit the bridge from his office located alongside the span. He later watched footage of the incident taken from several bridge-mounted cameras.

“I think he was probably making an average approach southbound. He had his normal angle that these boats and barges make when they are coming through there,” Smith said in a phone interview, referring to the towboat pilot. “But there was so much current coming in from the other side … it really just shoved him on top of the pier.”

The barge ran into pier No. 3 of the bridge. The main navigation channel runs between pier No. 3 on the Mississippi side of the bridge and pier No. 4 on the Louisiana side, Smith said. The Vicksburg Bridge Commission owns the 1.6-mile span, which carries rail traffic between the two states.

Pier No. 3 sustained minor damage and did not require repairs. The bridge was closed after the accident as a precaution. It reopened at about 1930 on May 23 after an inspection.

Graestone Express was pushing barges loaded with grain and coal. The barge that sank at mile marker 431.6, barge T497, was loaded with grain. As of June 1, it had not been raised from the river bottom. Walter said that would not occur until the river level fell below 43 feet.

The nearby towboats Synergy and General rounded up the loose barges shortly after the accident, Walter said. No injuries were reported and there was no environmental damage.

The Coast Guard restricted vessel traffic on the Mississippi between mile marker 439 and 431 after the accident. The restrictions were lifted at 2235 that night.

Graestone Logistics of Murray, Ky., operates Graestone Express. An employee at the Kentucky office referred questions to a staffer in Mobile, Ala., who did not return a phone message.

Barge tows struck the Old Highway 80 Bridge five times in 10 days during flood conditions last year. Two of the incidents were serious, Smith said. Last summer, the bridge commission installed sensors on the support piers to track impacts from passing tows.

The Graestone Express incident was the first bridge strike of any consequence this year, he said. Another tow grazed the bridge in early May but did not cause any damage.

By Professional Mariner Staff